President & First Lady visit Black Mesa's oldest resident

Shirley gives report to Black Mesa Chapter, receives warm welcome

Photo by George Hardeen
First Lady Vikki Shirley, left, Nellie Rose and Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr.

Photo by George Hardeen First Lady Vikki Shirley, left, Nellie Rose and Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr.

BLACK MESA, Ariz. -- The oldest resident of this remote chapter, and perhaps one of the oldest of the entire Navajo Nation, welcomed the Navajo president and first lady to her home for a 30-minute visit when they traveled here May 13 to present a report to the chapter.

Nellie Rose, who is 104 years old, enjoyed a spirited conversation with Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., and First Lady Vikki Shirley when they were brought to visit her by Black Mesa/Forest Lake/Rough Rock Council Delegate Amos Johnson.

Rose, who lives in a small, tidy and sunlit home a short drive from the Black Mesa Chapter House, sat on her sofa with her 76-year-old daughter, Mary Z. Whitehair, nearby in a wheelchair. After learning of the president's clan, Rose joked that he was her in-law and that she needed him to come herd sheep for her.

Shirley gave them an 11-by-14 inch photograph of Rose and another daughter taken several years ago by renowned Japanese photographer Kenji Kawano, who has made his 25-year career photographing Navajos. Among Kawano's books are "Warriors," the first book of photographs of the Navajo Codetalkers. The Navajo Codetalkers Association has made Kawano, who lives in Window Rock and is a Navajo in-law, their official photographer.

At the chapter

The Black Mesa Chapter was one of those hardest hit by this past winter's weather. Its dirt roads remain rutted and bumpy. But after generations of tough conditions, the people here still know how to cope. One grandpa rode his horse to the chapter meeting.

Afterward, the president spent about two-and-a-half hours at the chapter house, using most of that time talking on a wide range of subjects. The president and first lady received a warm and friendly welcome from 60 people attending the meeting and were treated to a meal that included blue corn mush and warm goat milk. Following the president's report, Chapter President Marvin Yellowhair called the meeting to order at 7 p.m.

The president explained his proposal for the five-year-long, $429 million Navajo Capital Improvement Plan and his hope for its approval, after previous tabling, by the Navajo Nation Council in July. He said the plan would allow the Navajo Nation to construct projects in every Navajo chapter. These would include multipurpose buildings, senior citizen centers, trauma centers, Headstart and other education facilities.

The bond proposal would allow construction of public safety and justice facilities that would include needed jails and courts. Nursing homes for elder care is another priority of the plan.

The president also said he wants to see trauma centers built for critically injured individuals who need urgent care rather than continuing to have to transport them long distances to facilities in Flagstaff, Gallup, Farmington, Albuquerque and Phoenix within the critical first hour of an injury. This would save many lives every year.

Payback for the bond would be $15 million per year. He said the Nation's undesignated reserve is steadily decreasing while the needs of the Navajo people are increasing with the rising population.

A salary increase for council delegates was on the spring session agenda, the president reported, but that it did not go before the council. However, the President said the Council Delegates had already given themselves a $1.3 million raise by putting it into stipends.

School improvement

Many schools on the Navajo Nation are in disrepair and need renovation, the president said. While in Miami for a BIA budget meeting earlier this week, he and many leaders from tribes across the country told federal officials that they wanted to meet with President Bush regarding their concerns about federal budget cuts to Native American education programs.

These will sustain the deepest of the $219 million in cuts proposed by the Bush Administration for federal BIA budget next year, which include a $3.9 million reduction in Johnson O'Malley funding.

Shirley said he pleaded on behalf of the Navajo people to increase, rather than decrease, education funding. While BIA officials expressed inability to change the budget priorities of the Bush Administration, the media this week reported that Congress has approved $84 million more for military funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Regarding Navajo tribal scholarships, one of the most urgent issues to Navajo people, the president said that thousands of students apply but less than half of them receive funding. To remedy this, he said his plan is to increase scholarship funding for all applicants through projected gaming and lottery revenues. It is expected that a gaming director will be selected soon, which will begin the process in earnest.

The Peaks

Regarding the deep concern Navajos have about the sacred nature of the San Francisco Peaks, Shirley reported that he tried to persuade U.S. Forest Service officials not to approve a plan to permit expansion of the Arizona Snowbowl. Despite this, on March 8, Coconino National Forest Supervisor Nora Rasure decided to allow the expansion and to permit the use of reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow, which Navajo, Hopis and many other tribes find sacrilegious and appalling.

"They didn't listen," the President said.

Consequently, the Navajo Nation joined an appeal of many other tribes and environmental groups. He said he hoped a new decision will be made in the fall.

"If the decision goes against us again, the next step is to appeal to President Bush," he said.

In order to keep the Black Mesa coal mines from closing at the end of this year, the President reported that a study is being conducted to determine whether there is enough water from the C-aquifer to replace the pristine N-aquifer water now being used by the Black Mesa Pipeline to slurry coal.

He said this is still in the proposal stage and no decision has been made.

However, as president, he supports continued mining at Black Mesa while others urge closure of the mines, he said. Negotiations are continuing that could keep open the Mohave Generating Station near Laughlin, Nev. That would depend on a continual source of coal, which, in turn, would depend on having a source of water for the pipeline to supply the coal to the power plant.

Many Navajo people are employed at the mines at a time when unemployment is extremely high across the Navajo Nation, he said. In the past, he added, there was opposition to continued logging of the Navajo forests that resulted in closure of the sawmills at Sawmill, Ariz., and Navajo, N.M. Whether right or wrong, today, the huge buildings that housed the sawmills stand empty and deserted, and the jobs have disappeared from the area.

There are other areas on Navajoland where opposition to growth and development resulted in job loss without replacement, he said. This contributed to stifling the Navajo economy. Now, he added, many non-Navajo businesses are reluctant to bring their businesses to the Navajo Nation. He pointed out that through the years revenue from Peabody Energy has funded many Navajo programs and provided a livelihood to hundreds of Navajo families. If the mines shut down, he said, this important and huge source of funding will be lost.

Gaming issue

On gaming, the president said the Navajo people have voted to approve it, and he supports it. He said the Navajo Nation now needs the revenue that will be produced from gaming. Projections indicate gaming will produce $50-to-60 million per year.

Other economic development projects the Navajo is exploring include latex glove production, a bottled water plant and a meat processing facility.

Afterward, the President spent approximately an hour answering the people's questions.

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